Ready to Pop

With enough creativity, anything can be a taco. Beyond hard or soft shells, salads and bowls, the satisfying spices and resounding crunch can be translated in any edible medium. That’s why I’m going for a much bolder base to celebrate National Taco Day on October 4th. Taco jalapeño poppers could just change this beloved Tex-Mex snack.

Typical jalapeño poppers are a bit boring for my tastes. Stuffed with plain cream cheese before being battered and fried, they’re tasty enough with a beer or two, but nothing to write home about. Take it to the next level with Hodo’s Mexican Crumbles to make an instant taco filling, perfect for stuffing into these peppery shells. This high-protein staple is ready to eat right out of the package, infused with chipotles, oregano, and a squeeze of lime, so all the hard work is done for you.

Bringing the taco theme home, finely crushed tortilla chips replace bland breadcrumbs for an extra crispy, lightly salted, and perfectly corny bite. You get all the best parts of a crunchy taco in one killer app, ideal for a party or midnight cravings.

Considering how decadent and crave-worthy they taste, it might be hard to stop at a single serving. Go ahead, indulge!

These poppers have the edge on the nutritional competition for many reasons:

  1. Air fried, not deep-fried. The only fat here comes from the cheese, not frying oil.
  2. Dairy-free cheese means zero cholesterol.
  3. Plant protein. One package of Hodo Mexican Crumbles alone has over 45 gram of protein!
  4. Full of fiber. Try to find another game day snack that can actually keep you satisfied from kickoff to overtime.

In fact, the versatility of this recipe goes well beyond the opening act.

You can make it the main event by pairing with any of the following serving suggestions:

  • Plain or seasoned rice
  • Pinto beans, black beans, or refried beans
  • Green salad or cabbage slaw
  • Tortilla chips and salsa or guacamole
  • Elote or esquites

Jalapeño poppers are a relatively new phenomenon, appearing on menus only a few decades ago in the early 90s. It’s not too late to redefine the dish with new flair and brighter flavors. Take inspiration from beefy meatless tacos to get the party started.

Continue reading “Ready to Pop”

Pop On Over for Papadum

Culinary magic is the only way to explain how papadum are made. Ethereally thin and immaculately crisp, each fragment shatters upon impact like a flavor grenade straight to the tongue. Even after subsequent bites, palate fatigue never sets in because each piece is a little bit different, sparkling with both whole and ground spices embedded into the peaks and valleys formed by air bubbles while cooking. Calling them crackers or chips doesn’t do this classic Indian snack proper justice.

While plain versions do exist, the vast majority apply seasoning with a liberal hand. Why stop at just cumin and chili powder when you could further enhance your papad with umami? This is a job for Sugimoto shiitake powder, of course! It’s the ideal addition because it won’t clash or cover up other spices, but serves to further enhance their inherent flavors. That’s another kind of magic that seems fitting for such a captivating crisp.

What make papadum so special?

The basic ingredients that go into making papadum are spare, common, affordable pantry staples. Chickpea flour is the only non-negotiable in this recipe, although lentils, rice, and potato are traditional variants, so there’s certainly room for more experimentation. This legume base creates a delicate dough that’s not only high in protein, but also gluten-free.

It’s the technique that creates the alchemic transformation. After initially rehydrating the flour, the individual disks are dehydrated. At this stage, uncooked papads have such a low moisture content that they can keep for months in a cool, dry place. A quick and intense blast of heat brings them to life. This is the same principle at play for shrimp chips and chicharrones: the remaining water expands, stretching the dough and creating the fine matrix of bubbles just below the surface.

Tips for making perfect papadum:

  1. Use a stand mixer to bring the dough together. It’s extremely thick and dry which makes it difficult to effectively mix by hand. Resist the temptation to add more water, which will quickly transform the malleable dough into a sticky paste.
  2. Lightly oiled hands are much more effective at flattening the individual papad than a rolling pin. Just stretch somewhat like a pizza dough first before placing each one on a piece of parchment paper. Use your fingertips to gently press it out as thinly as possible. A rolling pin is much more likely to stick, tear, and generally make a mess. For the gadget lover: If you have a tortilla press or a pasta roller, those are other great alternatives for a more consistent, smooth surface.
  3. Thickness, or more accurately thinness, is critical for success. Aim for about 1/16 of an inch thick; thinner than gingerbread cookies, thinner than western crackers, thinner than you think is really possible.
  4. Dehydrate slowly and thoroughly. Traditionally, papad are simply left out in full sun for 2 – 3 days, but it’s important to control the drying rate accurately for long term storage. Excess moisture invites bacteria growth that will cause spoilage.

What’s the best way to cook papadum?

You have three options for that final step: Microwaving, air frying, and deep frying.

  • Microwaving is the quickest, easiest, cleanest, and arguably healthiest. In a matter of seconds, papadum spring to life with no oil at all. It’s safe for kids (or particularly accident-prone adults) to use by themselves for an instantly gratifying snack. The downside is that not all microwaves are created equal, so it may take some trial and error to find the sweet spot for timing, power levels, and placement.
  • Air frying is my personal favorite approach, reaping the textural benefits of dry, intense heat for quick cooking, with just a touch of added oil for a subtle extra depth of flavor. This sensation, the richness of fat, is known as kokumi in Japanese, which works in concert with the umami of the shiitake powder to create a more rounded, harmonious, and simply delicious experience.
  • Deep frying or pan frying is most traditional, harnessing the firepower of hot oil to make the crispiest, crunchiest, and quite frankly the most addictive food around. It’s fantastic on special occasions, but I hate the mess and peril that comes hand-in-hand with setting a bubbling vat of edible napalm on the stove.

Once you start making papadum from scratch, it’s hard to go back to store-bought. Detonating with a calculated barrage of spices, each wafer-thin bombshell blows the competition out of the water.

Continue reading “Pop On Over for Papadum”

Love Triangles

Samosa will always have a place close to my heart. As a baby vegan, before I knew how to cook anything more complicated than plain pasta, frozen foods were my saving grace. One of my favorites was a frozen samosa wrap, an American-Indian mashup of a beloved potato pastry. Gently spiced, golden mashed potatoes gleamed from within a whole wheat tortilla, dotted with tender green peas for an ideal toothsome bite. They could be eaten toasted, microwaved, or simply thawed, which suited my haphazard meal planning perfectly. Though not the most authentic introduction, it opened my eyes to the rich world of flavors unlocked by Indian cuisine.

From that time on, samosas were always my safe food when eating out. When friends or family wanted their tikka masala or tandori, I knew I could count on the humble spud to fill buttery fried pastries, and in turn, my stomach. Little did I know that the original samosas, introduced to the Indian subcontinent around the 13th century by traders from Central Asia, had nothing to do with the starchy staple. In fact, the original samosa was stuffed primarily with sauteed onions, ground meat, peas, spices, and herbs. Sometimes pistachios, almonds, or chickpeas might enter the picture as a nod to their middle eastern inspiration, but there was not a single potato to be found.

Wondering what I might have been missing all those years, I was curious to get a taste of this protein-packed variant. It would be easy enough to take a traditional recipe and swap in a hyper-realistic vegan beef substitute, but I prefer to start from scratch. Naturally, I’m building the flavor foundation with Sugimoto shiitake, minced finely to approximate the rich, savory flavor and chewy texture of minced meat. Crumbled tempeh carries that flavor with an equally umami, fermented base.

Building those layers of nuanced, harmonious, and craveable flavors starts with tempering spices according to Indian tradition, but certainly doesn’t end there. Japanese ingredients like soy sauce and shiitake create a truly irresistible taste sensation. Folded into flaky pastry triangles, there’s no better snack, starter, or entree around.

How can you make quick and easy samosa?

If you’re daunted by pastry dough, don’t worry. There are plenty of quick-fix solutions for that outer wrapping, such as:

  • Phyllo dough
  • Puff pastry
  • Pie dough
  • Spring roll wrappers
  • Burrito-sized flour tortillas

Alternately, you don’t need to create a crispy outer layer to contain all that meaty goodness in the first place. Other uses for the filling sans pastry are:

  • Bun samosa (sandwiched between fluffy hamburger or slider buns)
  • Pizza topping
  • Chip dip
  • Bolognese sauce

Want to make a healthier samosa?

Though they’re traditionally deep-fried, I like to pan-fry or shallow fry mine. You can easily cut down on the added oil and fat even further.

  • Air fry at 370 degrees for 15 minutes, flipping after 10 minutes, until crispy and browned on both sides.
  • Bake in a conventional oven preheated to 400 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes, flipping halfway through, until golden brown.

How can you serve samosa?

Like any properly constructed hand pie, samosa are designed to be eaten out of hand. Though brilliantly flavorful as is, it never hurts to add a simple dipping sauce, especially as a cooling temperature contrast to the hot pastry. My favorite options include:

If you’d like to create a well-rounded plated meal with samosa as the centerpiece, that’s a snap, too! Just add one or more sides:

  • Leafy green salad
  • Chopped cucumbers and tomatoes
  • Rasam (spicy tomato soup)
  • Lentil dal
  • Basmati rice

While the younger me might be horrified at the distinct lack of potato content, the older and wiser me knows better. Amplified by the natural umami of Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms, this is my new go-to comfort food. Being homemade gives it the edge over store-bought frozen options, no doubt, but the concept itself transcends such a simplistic view. Once you taste bite through that flaky, crisp pastry and tear into that decadently moist, meaty beefless filling, sparkling with a vibrant palate of bright spices, you’ll understand why it’s the staple food that changed Indian cuisine as we know it today.

Continue reading “Love Triangles”

Hot Tots

So bad that they’re good; unwanted scraps that everyone can’t get enough of; terminally uncool to the point of being a new trend. Tater tots live in a world of conflicting extremes, forever at odds with themselves and the public at large. We have Ore-Ida to thank for the innovation in 1951, when new French fry cutting technology gave birth to immaculate shoestrings while leaving mountains of potato slivers and small pieces in its wake. That excess became the foundation of tots as we know them, formed and fried into something entirely new.

Any kid growing up in the 90s had more than their fair share of the crispy potato bites, piled up on cafeteria trays and smothered with ketchup, in lieu of any other vegetable-like matter. I remember my first encounter in first grade, when I got to the front of the line and found the paper boat of tots before me. These weren’t the thick potato wedges I wanted, and not even the smooth mashed potato puree that I tolerated. With great trepidation, I took a microscopic bite, chewed once, chewed twice… And spit it into the trash. For the rest of the day, I languished in the nurse’s office, convinced I was sick, and that those demonic tater tots had done me in.

Drama aside, I came to learn after many years that tots were not all bad. Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. Consistent, reliable, affordable, and ageless, they’re an accommodating neutral base for toppings and dips of all types. Now that Millennials are “grown up” and seeking solace in their kitchens, tater tots are finally reaching their full potential. No longer reject spud shards but genuinely worthy starters and snacks, I, too, have come around to the ways of the tot.

That said, I don’t crave them. I wouldn’t go out of my way to try them, nor are they my first, second, or third choice on a menu. It needs to be something really special to catch my eye… Like the cauliflower tots served at Better Half Coffee & Cocktails here in Austin. These savory nuggets are square, fried to crispy perfection, and served alongside a silky purple beet ketchup. Sadly, they’re not vegan thanks to the generous application of eggs and cheese, but I couldn’t get them out of my mind after one visit. They certainly made a more lasting impression than the date I was on at the time.

I could sell these as a healthier, lower-carb option that’s naturally gluten-free and higher in protein, but this isn’t about getting the most nutritious snack. Let’s be honest: No one eats tater tots for the health benefits, so caulitots shouldn’t try to be anything other than delicious. That is where they truly excel. The outsides are browned to a satisfyingly crunchy finish, while the interiors remain moist, creamy, and slightly gooey thanks to the inclusion of vegan cheese shreds.

For a recipe worth more than nostalgic value, caulitots truly elevate the humble bar snack to a new level. Though you could serve them with regular old ketchup, BBQ sauce, plant-based honey mustard, or even ranch dressing, give the beet ketchup a try, at least once. It’s better than your average dip, and these upscale tots deserve the best, as do you.

Continue reading “Hot Tots”

Stuffed to the Gills

Just like people, shiitake mushrooms come in all shapes and sizes.

Uniformity might be prized for mass-produced, cultivated mushrooms grown indoors, but greater flavor can be found in nature. Forest-grown Sugimoto shiitake are exposed to greater variation in sun, rain, and wind which in turn creates a greater depth of the flavor, richer texture, and higher nutritional value. This method has withstood the test of time, serving Japanese growers well for over 1000 years with countless bountiful harvests to show for it.

Since it is impossible to control the weather, these wild shiitake mushrooms develop into two primary classifications, largely dependent on the season: Donko and Koshin.

Donko are gathered before the mushroom can fully bloom or open up. These shiitake are a thicker, chewier, and meatier, but smaller overall. The name itself from the Chinese word for “winter,” as they’re harvested primarily in the cooler months from January to April.

Koshin, bearing flatter but larger caps, are named after the word for “fragrant.” Brilliantly aromatic, they produce an ambrosial bouquet of umami before you even take a bite. Fully mature when harvested, they’re inactive during the summer months due to the high temperatures, but flourish in fall for plentiful late autumn yields.

Although they’re born of the same spores, the mushrooms change shape and texture depending on the time of harvest.

Both varieties perform splendidly in a wide range of dishes, but to maximize the unique qualities of such delicately nuanced, artisanal products, it’s important to know their strengths. The best way to honor the work of the 600 family farmers, who painstakingly nurturing these spores deep in the mountains, is to treat their shiitake with care and respect.

Utilizing the inherent textural advantages the Donko shiitake has to offer in creating a firmer, juicier bite, they’re the only type of dried mushroom that can be brought back to life as a satisfying base for stuffing. Most others would buckle under the weight if dressed with a mere teaspoon topping, but these sturdy caps stand up to the demands as superlative finger foods.

Quick, homemade nut cheese dazzles with fresh herbs and a luscious creamy texture that seems to defy its dairy-free components. Vegan yogurt adds a slightly tangy, funky note, like earthy yet mild goat cheese, perfectly paired with the rich umami mushrooms underneath. Thick enough to spread on a bagel like cream cheese, it has a distinctly buttery quality thanks to a touch of nutritional yeast and sweet white miso paste. To enhance the aroma that might be lessened in the Donko shiitake, additional dried shiitake powder gives this schmear an irresistible final savory punch.

Grown in harmony with nature, both Koshin and Donko Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms lend that same symphonic balance to every dish.

Continue reading “Stuffed to the Gills”

Fresh is Best

Salsa, literally meaning “sauce” in Spanish, is every bit as versatile as that all-encompassing name suggests. Traditional renditions are as simple as chopped tomatoes and peppers with a pinch of salt, but there are no rules for this savory dance. Spicy or mild, acidic or alkaline, crisp or creamy, smooth or chunky; there’s a taste and texture to complement every meal.

In fact, modern salsas can just as easily be sweet and fruity to pair with dessert, not a vegetable in sight. The one universal rule to salsa is that no matter the ingredients, they must always be fresh. Forget about the shelf-stable stuff collecting dust on supermarket shelves; it may call itself salsa, but it sure doesn’t live up to this piquant condiment’s proud legacy.

You know you have a truly great salsa when you want to eat it with a spoon. No chips are needed to start the party with Sam’s Fresh Salsa, which is every bit as bold and flavorful as the fresh-cut produce that goes into each chilled package.

Inspired by the premier “Sam’s Fresh Salsa Blogger Recipe Challenge,” I decided to cut out the formalities and turn it into something I really could serve by the bowlful. Made from tart tomatillos, lime juice, garlic, peppers, and cilantro, the salsa verde immediately stood out to me as a versatile stand-alone snack and recipe starter. Bright, light, and refreshing with a subtle hint of jalapeño spice, it sings of summer’s bounty. The only other thing I can think of that might rival that fresh experience is gazpacho.

You see where I’m going here, right?

Gazpacho Verde is creamy and subtly sweet, closely aligned to classic Andalusian gazpacho, which is at least partially blended and surprisingly rich. Stale bread and a generous pour of extra virgin olive oil traditionally thicken this cool contender, but this Tex-Mex twist employs the luscious green flesh of ripe, buttery avocados instead.

As summer heats up, this is one instantly gratifying dish that will help you stay cool. Don’t touch that stove and put away your pans; this no-cook recipe only needs a brief blitz in the blender. For those really sweltering days, there’s no shame serving it in ice-filled glasses with a splash of vodka for a piquant Bloodless Mary.

You can get more fresh inspiration by checking out Sam’s Fresh Salsa on Facebook and Instagram, too. You can find them at ShopRite, Acme, and Safeway stores. Wish me luck in the contest!

Continue reading “Fresh is Best”